As the Black Lives Matter movement has become more prominent on a national & global scale, I started to wonder about the role that African Americans play in the coffee industry. Although I’ve been to countless coffee houses in the US, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen a black barista behind the counter.
Despite not interacting with a large number of black baristas during my time as a coffee drinker, race is an inescapable part of coffee- both in the past and today.
A VERY Brief History On Coffee
Coffee’s discovery is linked to Ethiopia and is thought to have been found before 865-925 CE, according to Mark Pendergrast in his book Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. In fact, coffee has such a close tie to Ethiopia that the word “coffee” is believed to have been derived from the word Kaffa- a region in Ethiopia.
After being discovered in Ethiopia, coffee was traded to the Middle East, Asia, and Europe, and was eventually brought to the Americas by European colonizers. Unfortunately, much of the crop’s success once it reached the Americas was reliant on the slave trade. In her article Slavery & Specialty: Discussing Coffee’s Black History, Sierra Burgess-Yeo argues that due to coffee’s background “it’s impossible to discuss the history of coffee without recognizing racism and the role of colonialism.”
Unfortunately, despite coffee’s African origins, the National Coffee Association’s 2019 survey found that Black Americans were the ethnicity least likely to have had coffee in the last day. Of those surveyed, only 54% of Black Americans had drank a cup of coffee the day before, while Caucasians were the second highest group at 64%.
The question becomes: why is there such a wide divide between Black Americans and other groups of coffee drinkers?
Economic Obstacles To Coffee Consumption
Dr. Scott Rosenberg, a History professor at Wittenberg University who specializes in African & Diaspora Studies, said that less Black Americans drink coffee because of financial and cultural reasons.
“You know you got to have some disposable income to go spend four bucks on a cup of coffee that you could make at home for a quarter. So, there are certainly financial issues,” Rosenberg stated.
“I grew up drinking gallons of Maxwell House with a shit ton of sweetened cream and sugar packets we’d steal from the nearest 7-11… though there wasn’t always food in the fridge, my mom could not live without her Maxwell House,” Johnson writes. “It’s asking a lot for her to spend $5 on a single cup of coffee when she can spend $5 on a week’s worth of that on Maxwell House.”
Research has shown that the highest income earners are the most likely to drink coffee. Only 54% of households that make less than $25,000 a year drink coffee with the percentage of coffee drinkers jumping drastically to 70% of households when the household’s income bracket is above $150,000.
Research shows that the percentage of people who drink coffee can be impacted by the income bracket they’re in. Households with higher incomes have a higher chance of being coffee drinkers. Source: Experian.
In 2017, Census data showed that Black Americans had the lowest real median household income at $40, 258. By comparison, white people had a median household income of $68, 145.
Cultural Hindrances To Coffee Consumption
Financial factors ultimately have a cultural effect that causes less Black Americans to become involved as baristas in the coffee industry. This then impacts how many Black-owned coffee shops exist in the US because of a lack of involvement from African Americans. A limited number of African Americans see themselves as fitting into the coffee industry, Rosenberg argues.
In a 2018 article by Phyliss Johnson, “Strong Black Coffee: Why Aren’t African-Americans More Prominent In the Coffee Industry”, she claims that white middle class men have been the main face of marketing campaigns for coffee up to this point and that has contributed to less Black Americans seeing themselves in the coffee industry.
P. Johnson states that “producers of carbonated beverages and juices have been quite successful in targeting marketing campaigns toward African- American communities, and African- Americans over-index on consumption levels in these product categories.”
Paradoxically, with the drink’s origins belonging to Africa, coffee companies may need to work even harder to create new, positive associations to the beverage for black customers.
Rosenberg stated that “although coffee started in Africa, there’s an interesting history of African Americans trying to separate themselves from Africa because, historically, there was an attempt during slavery to distort African culture to convince African Americans that Africans were savages, heathens, and barbarians. This was to reinforce notions that slavery was a better condition than life in Africa somehow.”
Rosenberg states that increased representation of Black American people as baristas or coffee owners needs to take place for more African Americans to become involved in the coffee industry.
Coffee: A Vessel For Change & Tough Conversations
As the Black Lives Matter movement has started to touch most facets of life on a national and global scale, many publications have begun to release specific information about where black-owned coffee shops can be located to show solidarity and support.
Rosenberg argues that there can be a lot value in consumers being aware of where black-owned coffee shops are in your neighborhood or city because of the many hardships that are still present in the US that make it more difficult for black-owned businesses to become successful.
Currently, the United States is going through a turbulent time period where a closer examination of our nation’s history is taking place. When most coffee drinkers look at their cup o’ joe in the morning, they aren’t associating it with the coffee bean’s birthplace of Ethiopia nor are they envisioning one of the thousands of Latin American farmers who make a living by picking the beans for hours each day.
Instead, they’re thinking of their friendly barista who slid them their coffee across the counter. And, statistically speaking, that barista was probably white.
Coffee, as one of the largest imports in the US, shouldn’t be removed from the broader conversations about race that are taking place across the country at the moment. If anything, sharing a cup of coffee (and it’s complex history) can serve as the perfect vessel for having difficult conversations about race with friends and colleagues.